words by lior phillips
photographs by jeremy lange
This interview was first published in Issue Three of our journal,
which is out now and on sale here
At this point, it’s not a surprise that in my conversation with John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats songwriter’s depth of knowledge would run the gamut from South African jazz to Italian noir novelists. His brilliant mind has powered a tremendous cult following over decades — fans have his lyrics tattooed on their bodies, credit his words for saving their lives. And when he’s not writing songs, Darnielle writes prose, having written a 33 ⅓ book and a pair of novels. Despite the extensive volume of words that come from within his deeply wrinkled mind, there’s not a sentence wasted; everything carries value, meaning, and most importantly, connection to others.
But perhaps the most interesting aspect of our conversation—and the entirety of the Mountain Goats’ new record, In League with Dragons—is the way in which the music stands up to the ever-present strength of Darnielle’s lyrics. At one point he invokes Parliament-Funkadelic as a comparison point: “It’s all just in the service of the one, in the service of a single groove.” It may seem an unlikely resemblance, but there’s a tight, rubbery synchronicity to the expanded base of musicians on the record.
Tying it all together, as is often the case for Darnielle, is the thin and wavering border between mortality and escapism, reality and fantasy. He focused on the music and wants to become a better technical musician, he explained, before it’s too late—a concept he’s had to think more about as he’s become a father. The end of life elicits a different reaction as an adult in the “real world” than it does as a child in fantasy—or in the parlance of this new record, there’s a big difference between cadaver-sniffing dogs and wizard kings.
Both have room for the extraordinary stand-ins and for the ordinary cares of the mundane, but there’s a difference between close mortality and the one soaring overhead with draconic wings…
LP: I know you’ve pushed back at the idea of this being a Dungeons & Dragons album, and beneath that obviously there’s the sense of pushing back against the idea of a concept album as reductive.
JD: It’s not a concept album. A concept album means a through-line plot-wise, or it has to have something very easily connecting it — like every song has the same word in the title or every song is about the same theme or some plot-line is going through. There is not that here. What there is here are the relics of other work coming through. I was working on a rock opera about this community living on the seaside headed by this wizard, and they were facing an invasion by sea, and the wizard’s powers are declining and they’re going to fight off the invasion. I had this thing coming together, but I also had these other little stories that kept bubbling up that were singular, self-contained songs. The things started to play together, and then what you get are the relics of what that other story was about reaching out through other stuff, which I think in large part is about ageing. And I never feel comfortable saying that.
LP: I kept repeating the song “Younger” because it’s nice and long, and it’s beautifully produced. As a die-hard fantasy reader myself, I love how easily we can sink ourselves into this world of imagination and dragons and elves and all, but then immediately you can tap into those stories and symbols and metaphors that bring you back to the core of what it is to be who we are.
JD: I’m getting emotional hearing this. Yeah, that’s right, especially in the sword and sorcery element of that lyric. It’s a very classic thing that goes back to Merlin stories, and King Arthur. You have the king who is ageing and his powers are declining. But at the same time, he understands more than he understood when he was a younger warrior charging into battle without any regard for his own health, future, or the consequences of his behaviour. The ageing wizard, the ageing king, the ageing warrior, they all share this thing where they learn the weight of their actions. And I think everybody experiences that, and artists experience it in another way.
It really gels around the idea that your teenage years are the ultimate in authenticity, right? That’s not an empty thought that I’m trying to dispel, but at the same time, when you make rock and roll, there’s this assumption that if you are growing older you are losing touch with the thing that is most vital in what you do. I don’t think that’s true, but we’ve seen it over and over again. We see a lot of rock bands who seem to be phoning it in as they age. They make a record but nobody listens to it. People might go to the show and the show might be great. But that’s the thing you fear if you make rock and roll: losing your vitality.
This happens in sports too, but in sports there’s more validity to it because your body can only survive for so long in sports. When somebody like George Foreman boxes as long as he does, people make fun of him, but it’s also a miracle because everybody knows when you hit 60 you will not be in there with the young kids. I was thinking earlier about how music is a space where men get to experience what more women experience quite commonly: as they grow older, they will have less value to those around them because so much value is placed on feminine appearance. I think rock music is a space where men get to experience a tiny fraction of that. The ageing rocker is not an image you want. But at the same time, I’m a writer before I’m a rock musician.
And I have to write about my own truth in some way.And the fact is I’m going to die! I’m closer to that than I used to be, and it’s become more real. Once you have children, the reality of death comes to perch on your shoulder. There will come a day when these creatures will be running around in the world and you won’t be there to protect them from anything. And it’s a chilling, horrifying feeling.
You’re trying to be your best parent and you want to protect them. But the reality is, once you’re a parent, if all goes according to plan, you will not always be here to protect them. You’ll be gone. And that, for me, is when death becomes much more present.
LP: I definitely connected to your music in a different way for this record; I’m very interested in the idea of someone like you exploring that there is that dragon, whether it’s a metaphor for something or not. I don’t really like the concept of speaking about age versus the youth. Just because you’re bringing up somebody older doesn’t mean you need to bring up somebody younger.
JD: I think abandoning some songs and taking on others is also part of that process. You challenge yourself to speak openly about where you’re at as an artist. I can write the same sorts of songs I’ve written before, and people will like them fine. But I’m lucky that this is my day job, right? So I sort of say, “Well, what can I do to earn my keep here?” And to me, that means being willing to stretch into themes I’m a little less comfortable with. That’s it for me right now. I get a lot of people asking me whether I’m going to write a children’s album, and I have a reflexive distaste for that because I always felt that when a songwriter does that, they’re copping out. To some extent, you should practice the discipline you studied. If you’ve never written a children’s song before, you’re probably not good at it right out of the gate.
I think what ageing does is… you have to be open to changing your definition of yourself. You have to look in the mirror every morning, and say, “Who am I now? Where am I actually at? What ideas about myself from an earlier version of am I forcing on the present version of me?” Songs and stories are a great place for addressing that.
LP: I know we mentioned the Dungeons & Dragons and fantasy, but then there’s also a noir side with the cadaver-sniffing dogs and the poisoners. When it comes to escapism, was there a particular genre or a style that you held close that really related to the subject or the feeling that you were trying to convey?
JD: There’s an intentional contrast between the stuff I was interested in when I was 11 or 12 and the stuff that strikes me as interesting now. When I was 11, I got really into high fantasy. Tolkien was my doorway and LeGuin was next. You could have much worse teachers than them. It was actually LeGuin who opened the door to go, “Well, you don’t have to have actual fantasy creatures for the world to seem otherworldly and yet recognizable.” So that was kind of a gateway into what came next. But then as a guy my age, I want you to picture this: I’m not a musician, I’m a businessman. I’m on a train and I’m reading a book. What kind of fiction is it? It’s probably detective fiction. I’ve started reading detective novels in the past few years, which I never cared about at all. And I noticed it. I felt like, “Yep, dudes your age just started getting into detective fiction.“
Because I’m me, most of the stuff I read is international, and if I read American detective guys it’s older guys like Erle Stanley Gardner or Ross Macdonald. But for the most part, it’s guys like Leonardo Sciascia. He’s from Sicily, and so often there’s a mafia element in his detective stuff. Just very mysterious, and it’s pretty great. I noticed my engagement with this is very similar to what my engagement with fantasy fiction was when I was a kid. It’s this other world that resembles this one, but I don’t actually live there. But you get to spend time there and sort of get a bunch of things that are really quite fantastic. You get to sort of harbour and look for what the themes are. In noir, that’s the incipient reality of death. That’s what noir is about, and what it means to try and be a person with that reality looming over you the whole time. Whereas fantasy is about resistance to that. But also in fantasy, there’s more sadness than dread. The dread of noir is in the reality of death, and the sadness of fantasy is the reality of what it exists in opposition to. I’m just thinking out loud…these aren’t principles that I adhere to, I’m just making this up as I go along!
LP: Can you imagine, I’ve already made the headline “Sciascia and Why John Hates Dragons and Loves Detectives.”
JD: You should read Sciascia! I found a used copy of one of his books in Galesburg, Illinois. I was shopping for used books because I had finished what I was reading, and then I dug in and he was republished by Granta like two years later. It was totally amazing.
LP: I was told so often as a child that Tolkien wrote some of his work in Hogsback, which is on the other side of South Africa from where I grew up. It may not have been true, but there were still a lot of physical places that I could visit that led me to the geek fandom that I had and still have. It’s interesting—I feel like I couldn’t have gone into that noir or gone into any sort of darker tones in literature if I didn’t have that precursor education with writers like Tolkien and LeGuin.
JD: There’s much to say about Tolkien, but I think if you read him when you’re young, there’s such great stuff to get out of it. He teaches you about world-building. He teaches you about believing in the world. When I was in sixth grade, I identified with Gollum. I was really deep, deep, deep into it. I can still recall some of the Elvish runes, but then it gets confused with the Hebrew that I took for a year in college.
LP: Hebrew is my third language, and I’ve always thought it looks Elvin. And also Arabic as well.
JD: I will always regret not taking Arabic in college. The Arabic department was posting flyers around the campus saying “Study the language of the angels.” And then it gave the Biblical reference for that, or maybe a Koranic reference. And I was like, “Ooh, man, I should do that!” But, since I was studying Hebrew, I didn’t want to overload myself. But then the Hebrew professor didn’t renew his contract at my school and disappeared. My Hebrew is just like baby Hebrew. I can say hello, thanks, and a couple of other things. And in the meantime, Arabic feels like a beautiful language to me, and there’s so much literature in Arabic to know. But I actually love to read things in translation. It’s sort of my big passion.
LP: I love that you mentioned that you feel very fulfilled by this record, and that certainly comes across just from the few times that I was able to listen to it. Do you feel like there’s something creative that you haven’t done yet that you want to?
JD: I would like to be a better musician. That’s the thing that’s been true for me for about 10 years now. I consider myself a good songwriter, a good lyricist. I’m a competent rhythm guitarist, and I have a style that some people enjoy. But when I played with these real musicians, I can’t play these songs the way that these guys could. I wrote the piano part and I’m proud to have done so, but Bram’s [Gielen] playing elevated it. And I played with Matt Douglas, a jazz musician, and he elevates my playing.
This also ties into ageing. I’m 51. I’m about exactly the age I was when my father had this exact same crossroads. He was a competent jazz pianist. He could sit down at a party and play some standards. And then he said to himself, “You know, I would like to be good. I would like to not just play, I’d like to understand.” So he studied with a guy named Gene Confer in Portland, and it was a discipleship relationship where my dad was practising six hours a fucking day. Now, my relationship with that was resentment because my parents were divorced, so I was spending my summer with dad and he was spending literally at least four hours on the piano. There was no dad time because he was playing piano and he was actually going to get good. And so I look at that and I think, what a thing to have done. He died last year and I’m looking at one of the books I brought home. He lived in England and I got his music books. One of them was called Jazz Hanon and it was exercises to learn to play jazz, and that’s what I’d like to be able to do. I’d like to become competent enough to sit in with Matt and people he plays with, to be able to have a change called out and do that. To not be a bandleader, to be a player. Musically, that’s where I’d like to go next. I don’t know if I will, because I have a job! And what’s expected of me is to lead, and I want to do that too. But if I have my way, I will become a better musician. I say this, but one of my goals is to play a guitar solo.
And I’ve been trying to get there for a decade…
In League With Dragons is out now, via Merge Records
Available as a hard copy in Issue Three of our journal – on sale here